I’m sure you’re thinking What the What? How can there be too much empathy? Isn’t it the compassionate person’s superpower? Well, the answer to this is yes and no.
“The state of empathy, or being empathic, is to perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person.” – Carl Rogers
Empathy is necessary in relationships; it helps you understand another’s feelings. However, when and how we use empathy can either hurt or help relationships. By nature, how we practice empathy is influenced by our personal biases and emotions, making it difficult to know how to use empathy in a healthy way.
I want to illustrate the beautiful side of empathy before I dive into its potential pitfalls in relationships. Empathy allows us to relate to others on a deeper, more intimate level, which lets the other person feel that you’re making a concerted effort to truly “see them.” Being emotionally felt, heard and seen conveys to someone else that you care enough about them to put yourself in their shoes to try and understand life from their perspective.
Our body intuitively senses when someone “gets us” or “what we’re experiencing.” If you pay attention, you’ll even notice a subtle release in your body when you feel someone empathize with you.
If empathy is so amazing, how can it be negative? Here’s an example:
Laura and Dan have been dating for five months. Laura’s feelings are growing for Dan, and she wants to know what Dan feels before she invests more time and energy into the relationship. Dan tells Laura that he likes her, but he’s fearful of commitment and can’t commit to anything serious. He tells Laura that his mother was abusive, and he has a difficult time trusting women.
At this point, you probably think that Laura should walk away. However, Laura already likes Dan, so she goes directly to empathizing with him. She listens to him talk about his abusive mother; he cries to her and she feels enormous sadness for him. How unfair it was that he had to experience such a horrible childhood. Laura completely understands why he doesn’t trust women (empathy).
Laura continues to see Dan because she likes him and hopes he’ll come around and learn to trust her with time. As you might have predicted, nothing ever changes. Dan’s story slowly morphs from “it’s not a good time” or “I’m scared to commit” to “I only want something casual and nothing more.”
Dan gave Laura a false sense of hope that he would be able to change and continued to see her knowing she wanted something more with him. Dan’s behavior exemplified a lack of empathy. Conversely, Laura neglected her feelings by over-empathizing with Dan and his fear of commitment rather than focusing on her own needs first. Too much empathy.
Neither are healthy.
We learn how to utilize empathy in our lives during our earlier years. If you had to focus on your parents to get your needs met, you most likely have core patterns that are programmed to be overly attuned to others before yourself. The expected behavior in the Anxious/Preoccupied attachment style focuses on empathizing with others more than oneself. Inversely, if you had parents who were unable to meet your needs, you likely learned not to depend on others. This core pattern programs us to be over self-focused, resulting in having less empathy.
Having empathy and being authentic to oneself is the ultimate balancing act. Having empathy and being true to oneself is essential in cultivating close relationships.
If you’d like to learn more about empathy in your relationships, please contact me at Hilary@millenniumhope.com.